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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Trump Administration Reduces Critical Habitat For Northern Spotted Owl

Spotted Owl OPB.jpg
Bradley W. Parks / OPB
An illustration from the 1820s shows a northern spotted owl, bottom left. Barred owls, top right, have been moving westward into the spotted owl's habitat, contributing to the spotted owl's precipitous decline.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the northern spotted owl deserves an upgrade to “endangered” status. The agency passed on its chance to do so and is now cutting its protected habitat by several acres.

The Trump administration has cut designated critical habitat for the northern spotted owl by millions of acres in Oregon, Washington and California.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it would remove 3.4 million acres of critical habitat protections for the bird, including all of what’s known as the O&C Lands, which is big timber territory in Western Oregon.

It’s the latest jab at the northern spotted owl on the president’s way out the door.

The spotted owl is currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service has said the bird warrants uplisting to “endangered” because of continued population declines. The spotted owl population decreased approximately 3.8% annually rangewide from 1985 to 2013.

However, the agency refused to uplist the spotted owl at the end of last year, saying other species took higher priority. That decision is facing a legal challenge led by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director, called the reduction of critical habitat a “parting shot” from the Trump administration.

“This is perhaps the nail in the coffin for the northern spotted owl,” Greenwald said, “and really undoes a lot of the great work that’s been accomplished under the Northwest Forest Plan.”

The reclusive northern spotted owl became the face of a campaign to save Oregon’s old growth forests from rampant logging in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The fight over the bird and the forests it inhabits was a watershed moment in Oregon history, shaping many of the social, political, environmental and economic divisions present in the state today.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says slashing the owl’s critical habitat satisfies a settlement agreement between the agency, the timber industry and counties. Half of all logging revenue from the O&C Lands — forests named for the long-defunct Oregon & California Railroad — goes to counties and schools, by law.

“We are delighted to see rational and positive decision making by the federal government,” said Tim Freeman, a Douglas County commissioner and president of the Association of O&C Counties, in a press release. “It has been a very long process, and there is still more to do. But this is a major step in the right direction.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s original proposal to reduce critical habitat for the owl last August totaled just 200,000 acres. The acreage announced Wednesday is a dramatic departure from its initial proposal.

The agency also removed critical habitat designation on 20,000 acres of land recently transferred to the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

The northern spotted owl still has more than 6 million acres of critical habitat.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal land agencies must designate critical habitat that must be maintained for species survival. That can include areas that could sustain protected species even if they don’t currently live there.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting